British Museum blog

Altaf’s Hajj: Preparation

Altaf Abbas and his wife Rashida are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. For information about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Altaf Abbas
We are a married couple, Altaf and Rashida Abbas with three children. We live in Leyton, East London very near the Olympics. We were both born in East London and have been married for 22 years. Both our parents are from Pakistan and came to the UK in search of work in the late 1950s. I work as a Construction Project Manager on the new extension of the British Museum which is currently underway and my wife Rashida works in the local Muslim school. We are going to Hajj on 30 Oct 2011 inshallah (God willing).

We have been planning to go for a number of years but became serious and made the commitment last year after speaking to some friends who had made the journey and described how it was such an amazing feeling. It is also one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four are believing in one god, fasting in Ramadan, paying charity and establishing regular prayer (five times a day). We are travelling on a package deal which includes flights, transfers, hotel and a trained guide.

I thought it was going to be a complicated process, however it was very easy. We just paid our deposit, got our vaccinations and posted our passports to the travel agent to get the visa. Three weeks later we paid the balance and collected our documents, at which point it became a reality that we were on our way.

Altaf buying fabric

Altaf buying fabric

The preparation that I have done is mainly background reading and lots of discussion with family and friends about their personal Hajj experiences to gain any tips about what to expect and things that I will need. The only real item that I needed to buy was the ihram which is the two unstitched white sheets that the men have to wear which signifies the shroud that Muslims are buried in, thus during the 10 days of Hajj everyone is equal.


Rashida Abbas
I have been told that I will need a huge dose of patience! I have watched lots of Hajj videos on YouTube and I am still not sure what to expect, but I think I will be in awe when I see the Ka’ba (black cloth covered building). My preparation has been to train my mind to be strong and be prepared for any hardship or difficult situation due to the huge crowds. Physically I have been walking two miles each day for the last four weeks as we will be walking a lot and I want to be fit and ready for it.

I have so many mixed emotions running through my mind. I’m excited, happy, scared and anxious as I am not sure what to expect on the day. But I do know it will be a spiritually uplifting experience.

Filed under: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, ,

My artistic practice


Nicola Jarvis, artist and hand embroiderer,
Royal School of Needlework

Nicola Jarvis was one of the ‘unknown’ embroiderers who worked together to construct the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. In this guest blog post, she explores how anonymous craftspeoples’ identities can create a sense of mystery and magic.

My artistic practice is a work in progress that has been evolving ever since I could hold a pencil. During this journey, I trained as a hand embroiderer at the Royal School of Needlework in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades I have worked on numerous commissions for the Royal School and contracts for a multitude of companies and private individuals. Most of these jobs have involved making stitched items or artworks for which, after payment, I received no further acknowledgement for my craftsmanship. This has become the norm for me, and my colleagues working in the same industry.

To create a well-crafted object through an intimate relationship with the materials and process of making constitutes much of the job satisfaction.

The history of material culture is made up of hundreds of thousands of anonymous craftspeople that have made objects as a livelihood, to enable their survival and that of their families, with no thought of recognition for what they do.

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

I am currently in Delaware, USA, at the Winterthur Museum attending an international needlework conference where 230 delegates are examining and discussing the work of English and American embroiderers over the past 400 years. Some of the makers’ identities are known revealing fascinating stories of where, why and how their needlework was made. Others remain hidden and it is only through detailed study of their craftsmanship that we may construct our own narratives. I think this mystery creates much of the ‘magic’ that surrounds an object with a potent mix of unanswered questions and possibilities.

When I began my training at the Royal School of Needlework, it was the mastery of skills and process of making embroidery that was of utmost importance to me. When working the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, 20 years on, this was still the case.

I played a small part in a process that involved a large team of highly skilled needlewomen realising a very beautiful textile in the history of object making. Our stories and relationships are bound up in that dress, made with a commitment to, and a passion for, our craft. The individual and/or joint identities are not imperative, rather the collective energy and mastery of the materials and techniques is what will always be valued and celebrated.

Nicola’s embroidery short course at the Museum starting on Sunday 6 November is now fully booked, but take a look at other events in the Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman programme.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, , , , , ,

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Venetia Porter, exhibition curator

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will tell the story of a remarkable religious phenomenon – the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Makkah (Mecca), the birthplace of Islam. This is the British Museum’s third exhibition in a series exploring the idea of spiritual journeys – following the ancient Egyptians’ journey through the afterlife and the Christian pilgrimages undertaken throughout medieval Europe.

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The exhibition will focus on three main stories: the journey, the Hajj itself, and what it means to have performed Hajj. There will be fascinating and beautiful objects – ranging from archaeological finds to modern art – from many different public and private collections.

All Muslims, wherever they live, are obliged to complete this pilgrimage (known as Hajj) if they are able, at least once in their lives. Hajj takes place every year, starting on the eighth day of the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah (the last month in the Muslim calendar) and involves a sequence of rituals that must be followed over a period of five days.

When we consider the journey of Hajj it is important to imagine a time before modern travel – and it immediately becomes clear why the Arabic word Hajj conveys a sense of striving toward a goal.

The exhibition will explore four key historical routes that lead to Mecca – from Baghdad, from across the Sahara and via Cairo, from Istanbul through Damascus, and from across the Indian Ocean arriving at Jedda, the port for Mecca and where pilgrims arrive today – many by plane.

For some, this journey could take months. For those coming from across the Indian Ocean and further east, it could take a year as ships before the age of steam could only travel when the monsoon winds blew in the right direction. Such journeys could be rough and terrifying. The Malaysian Munshi Abdallah wrote in 1854 ‘A rough wind blew as we tried to cross Cape Cormorin. Oh God, oh God, oh God! I can’t begin to describe how horrendous it was and how tremendous the waves were….all the goods, chests, sleeping mats and pillows were flung about…everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking nothing else but that death was close at hand.’

Many of the objects will be coming from similarly far-flung locations, but their journeys will be much less perilous. Major loans will be coming from collections across the Middle East, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Mali, Indonesia and Europe. A significant number of objects are being lent by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust).

Certain objects, however, will merely be making the short trip from neighbouring galleries in the Museum, or from the Museum’s store rooms. With a global collection, the British Museum is well-placed to cover a subject that links so many different areas of the world.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, , ,

In search of the Vikings


David Prudames, British Museum

Last week, the extremely exciting news broke of the discovery of the ship-burial of a high-status Viking in Scotland.

The excavation was undertaken by a team of experts from a number of institutions working on the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, which is exploring evidence on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland for the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods (from about 9000 to about 1000 BC).

Laid to rest at least 1,000 years ago, this must have been an important individual as his remains were found surrounded by what’s left of a large ship (mainly just rivets, as the wood it was built from has rotted away) and possessions including a sword, shield, knife, axe, bronze ringed pin and whetstone.

There’s an article about the discovery on the Guardian newspaper website, as well as a video of the axe being excavated. On the BBC website there are a couple of videos about the finds, one of a BBC Scotland news report and a short interview with Oliver Harris, a member of the excavation team.

Some of the finds shown in these videos are very similar to objects in the collection of the British Museum, where the Vikings are well-represented.

My colleague Barry Ager told me about another boat burial dating back to more or less the same period as this one. It was discovered in Lilleberge Norway in the nineteenth century, and there is a large collection of iron rivets from it in our collection online.

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

The Cuerdale hoard of Viking silver

There’s a selection of interesting Viking objects in an online tour on our website, including a hair comb made out of an antler; an iron spearhead found in the River Thames, and the remarkable Cuerdale hoard discovered in the nineteenth century – the largest hoard of Viking silver from western Europe (over 40kg of it), stashed away during a time of upheaval.

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

Excavation of the ship at Sutton Hoo in 1968

This fascinating discovery also reminded me of a much earlier ship-burial, objects from which are on display here at the British Museum. The burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk is not Viking, rather it held the remains of an Anglo-Saxon of clearly high status and surrounded by some incredible finds, many of which have become rightly famous – the magnificent helmet in particular.

A new display in Room 2 at the British Museum shows some of these finds in the context of the wider early medieval world of Europe and beyond, while their permanent home undergoes a refurbishment.

It interestingly places the both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – among others – in the wider context of contact and trade across a vast area from Scandinavia to north Africa, the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , ,

Finding out how money actually works


Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I am the anthropologist on the British Museum’s Money in Africa project. I have come to Malawi, in central-southern Africa, to explore how money actually works – in action, outside the glass-fronted cases of our gallery in the Museum.

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Living and spending time with people in Blantyre, the country’s economic hub, I am learning about how people handle their cash. And, in a country where more and more people have bank accounts, I am learning what people use them for.

This might all sound obvious, but here are a few quick first impressions that point to differences from what UK readers might be familiar with. The highest value banknote – 500 Malawian Kwacha (MK500) – is big, colourful, covered in elaborate security features, and often brand new. It looks and feels high value. But it is worth about £2, and large payments involve thick wads of notes (plastic cards are almost never used). Meanwhile, although the cost of a newspaper is MK200, people use the battered MK20 and MK50 notes all the time. Public transport in mini-buses, for example, costs MK50 or MK70. As I quickly discovered, all this means a lot of paper.

And bank accounts? Considering all the paper, it is maybe unsurprising that, for some businesspeople I have met in Blantyre’s poorer, high-density urban areas, bank accounts offer protection against losing everything in a household fire, or a robbery. For others, bank accounts take all of those banknotes out of the everyday politics of family life. As I get to know these and other people better during my three months here, I hope to discover more about their concerns and goals. And I hope to understand the effects of people taking their cash out of their homes and businesses.

My research in its early days has taken me to poor urban areas and wealthy suburbs, to the streets of the city centre and to a peri-urban settlement (a settlement adjoining an urban one) built on the steep banks of a small stream. As I gradually learn more about the everyday realities of money in Malawi, I will be updating this blog, and would welcome any comments or questions. Hopefully, my posts will give you a sense of how wide-ranging the British Museum’s research is.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research, , , , ,

Grayson Perry at the British Museum?

Philip Attwood, Exhibition Project Curator
Chair of the Modern Museum Group at the British Museum

You might be wondering why a contemporary artist is putting on a show at the British Museum. Well, the artist is Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winner, probably most famous for his witty and satirical ceramics. He approached the Museum a few years ago and proposed an exhibition which would pay tribute to anonymous craftsmen and craftswomen over the centuries. The British Museum is the ideal place for this, as its collection spans over 2.5 million years of human culture and most of the objects in the collection were made by people whose names are lost to us today. There is almost no other place on earth that could claim to represent the history and culture of humankind. Grayson’s work sits alongside these objects, and shows us new ways of looking at the collection.

The Museum also has a tradition of working with contemporary artists. Years ago we worked with Henry Moore and Eduardo Paolozzi and in the last few years the Museum has played host to the exhibitions Statuephilia (2008), which included works by Antony Gormley. Damien Hirst, and Marc Quinn, and Medals of Dishonour (2009), which featured medals by William Kentridge, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Steve Bell and even an example by Grayson. This is in addition to the ongoing work by curators across the Museum to make sure the collection contains contemporary pieces – from many cultures across the world.

I have spent two years behind the scenes, working with Eleanor Bradshaw and curators from departments across the Museum to help Grayson put his exhibition together. I’m really pleased to finally get to share it with you. The press reviews are just starting to come in, and writing in The Independent, Howard Jacobson called it ‘the best exhibition by a contemporary artist I’ve seen in years.’ Some have questioned why this exhibition is at the British Museum but I hope the answer is becoming clear.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the Museum, has explained that it is quite different to anything we’ve done before. Usually exhibitions will be based on academic research of a particular subject, but the British Museum is also a “storehouse of the world’s imagination”. It’s a source of inspiration and has been for many artists. This exhibition shows how we can think about the world in new ways and reveals the extraordinary imaginative power of the collection.

Grayson has made it explicit that he wants the viewer of the exhibition to come away inspired. If you have visited the exhibition, what did you think? Please tell us which bits you enjoyed and which you didn’t on Twitter using #graysonperry or comment below.

I wanted the exhibition to offer an insight into Grayson’s creative imagination, and show that there are many different interpretations of objects in the Museum. Many people associate the Museum with ancient things, even though many of the pieces in the collection are contemporary. I hope this exhibition has changed people’s views.

I look forward to reading and responding to your thoughts and comments.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Digging Domuztepe: week five – clearing up, packing away

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the weekly progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

My last week in camp starts badly as our water supply fails. Apparently there were problems at the local pumping station. Ever adaptable, the team takes the soil sampling tins and some empty drinking water bottles to collect water from the local spring so at least we can flush our toilets.

Stuart emerges from the Neolithic well for the last time

Stuart emerges from the Neolithic well for the last time

The last week is always hectic and this year is no exception. We finish work on site on the last day before the holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. Much to everyone’s relief we manage to finish digging out the well and sort out the relationships between all the Neolithic mud walls we have found. Then, as a three day holiday starts for everyone else in Turkey, we begin the long process of packing everything ready to go into the local museum. It all needs to be cleaned and recorded before being packed away.

Time to pack things into the store at the museum

Time to pack things into the store at the museum

The work is incredibly varied. One minute you are brushing the soil from skeletons, the next labelling tiny beads and the next washing pottery. Then suddenly it’s the night before I am due to leave and I am frantically packing my own things into bags.

As my plane leaves the local airport the next day I have mixed feelings; glad to be going home but sad that the digging is over for another year.

As ever the team owes much thanks to the local residents of Kelibişler, Kadioğlu Çiftliği and Emiroğlu and all our other supporters in Kahramanmaraş and Pazarcik, especially the staff of Kahramanmaraş Museum.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

The present and future of money


Catherine Eagleton, curator, British Museum

When people think of the British Museum, images of antiquities are often part of what springs to mind. In fact, we collect and display modern and contemporary material, and the exhibition by Grayson Perry that has just opened is a great example of the ways that a contemporary artist can engage with our historic collections.

You might have read in the news a couple of weeks ago about the Google Wallet trial in New York, or about new mobile payment systems that are being developed in countries around the world. In the UK, debates about whether to phase out payments by cheque are still ongoing, but it seems clear that we’re in a period when what money is and how we use it is going to change substantially.

Reports of the death of cash have, though, probably been greatly exaggerated. The new technologies have some way to go before they can compete with the anonymous convenience of coins and notes for many people and for many transactions.

Earlier this year, I was at the Digital Money Forum, and a group of artists were asked to imagine what the future of money might look like. The winner has since developed a video that creates a fictional scenario looking at ideas of money and anonymity (warning: contains language which some may find offensive), and what could happen if all payments were digital and all could be traced.

A mobile phone

Mobile phones are increasingly used to make payments and transfers

For some people, the biggest concern isn’t anonymity, but more basic concerns about security, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations with a group of researchers who are studying money in Haiti. There, because of the risks involved in carrying cash around, the use of mobile phones to make payments is increasing, fast. People are also using digital transfers to keep their money safe while they are moving around.

As we develop the Money gallery, the challenge is not just how to display this – how to collect and put into an exhibition things that are electronic – but also how to make sure that the modern sections of the gallery can change during the lifetime of the displays.

Whatever happens, I think it’s clear that the next five years will see big changes, and we will need to create content for a permanent display that can reflect them. For more on this, have a listen to the Digital Money podcast I did a couple of months ago.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, , ,

The Big Draw: why drawing matters


Hilary Williams, Art History Education Officer, British Museum

The act of drawing makes someone really look. Drawing heightens curiosity, one of the concepts on which the Museum was founded way back in 1753 when it aimed to attract the “interested and curious”. While drawing, you are almost asking yourself, how was this made, how did that craftsman or artist form this object, mould it, carve it, colour it and use it?

Drawing objects is part of a journey. A journey asking these questions but also discovering something about yourself, as you look, perceive, question and discover. As Picasso said so eloquently, “I do not seek, I find”.

The Big Draw will take place at the British Museum on Saturday 8 October 2011 and encourages participants to spend 20 to 30 minutes or more really looking at objects through drawing them.

This is our twelfth Big Draw and we’ve taken the theme from the forthcoming exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. That theme is the Teddy Bears Picnic and is inspired by Grayson’s use of Alan Measles, his teddy bear and god of his world of creativity, and should appeal to families or children of all ages, from three to 93… Teddies will be posed with the British Museum objects which have inspired Grayson in his choice of objects included in his new exhibition.

Why do I think the Big Draw is important? Drawing can be part of the creative exercise, creating another world for thoughts, dreams, objects or whatever. Drawing can also communicate that creativity. It can be a means of showing your imagination to someone else; what a sublime experience!

Grayson Perry is a marvellous example of this. He uses drawing to create imaginary worlds and a new context for thoughts or, in the exhibition at the British Museum, for objects. We are incredibly lucky that Grayson is coming to discuss why and how he draws, on Big Draw day, at 14.00.

To see the Big Draw in action is inspiring and a real thrill. It’s great to see people of all ages and backgrounds, drawing together, literally and metaphorically, across generations and cultures, without language being a barrier. Everyone can draw!

Come on a journey to draw and find curious new worlds, in front of your eyes and in your imagination!

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

The Big Draw: the teddy bears’ picnic takes place at the British Museum on Saturday 8 October, 11.00–16.00. The full programme is available online. Children and teddy bears must be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,917 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

The newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery is now open! Discover over 1,500 years of Korean history A Japanese print by Morikawa Sobun of deer and pine in the snow #BMAdventCalendar Happy #Hanukkah! This Judaean copper-alloy coin from 40–37 BC features a menorah A hand-coloured 15th-century woodcut print of the Nativity #BMAdventCalendar The Museum is the real star at the #NightAtTheMuseum after party. Owen Wilson, cool as a cucumber at the #NightAtTheMuseum after party.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,917 other followers

%d bloggers like this: